Launch startup Rocket Lab has been awarded a contract to launch a CubeSat on behalf of NASA for the agency's CAPSTONE experiment, with the ultimate aim of putting the CAPSTONE CubeSat into cislunar (in the region in between Earth and the Moon) orbit -- the same orbit that NASA will eventually use for its Gateway Moon-orbiting space station. The launch is scheduled to take place in 2021.
The CAPSTONE launch will take place at Rocket Lab's new Launch Complex 2 (LC-2) facility at Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. Rocket Lab opened its launch pad there officially in December, and will launch its first missions using its Electron vehicle from the site starting later this year.
The launch is significant in a number of ways, including being the second lunar mission to launch from the Virginia flight facility. It's also going to employ Rocket Lab's Photon platform, which is an in-house designed and built satellite that can support a range of payloads. In this case, Photon will transport the CAPSTONE CubeSat, which weighs only around 55 lbs, from Earth's orbit to the Moon, at which point CAPSTONE will fire up its own small engines to enter its target cislunar orbit.
Rocket Lab introduced Photon last year, noting at the time that it is designed in part to provide longer-range delivery for small satellites -- including to the Moon. That's a key capability to offer as NASA embarks on its Artemis program, which aims to return human astronauts to the lunar surface by 2024, and establish a more permanent human presence on and around the Moon in preparation for eventual missions to Mars.
CAPSTONE will play a key role in that mission by acting "as a pathfinder" for the lunar Gateway that NASA eventually hopes to build and deploy.
“CAPSTONE is a rapid, risk-tolerant demonstration that sets out to learn about the unique, seven-day cislunar orbit we are also targeting for Gateway,” said Marshall Smith, director of human lunar exploration programs at NASA in a press release. Detailing the news, “We are not relying only on this precursor data, but we can reduce navigation uncertainties ahead of our future missions using the same lunar orbit.”
In total, the launch contract with Rocket Lab has a fixed price of $9.95 million, the agency said. NASA expects contractors Advanced Space and Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems to begin building the CAPSTONE spacecraft this month ahead of its planned 2021 launch.